As we're segueing into our Indian summer, there's nothing like trying to prolong the warm weather vibe with alfresco dining on ceviches and drinking frothy pisco sours while taking in a view of the bay. Perched on the Embarcadero is ~LA MAR CEBICHERIA PERUANA~, the first stateside import from Peruvian executive chef Gastón Acurio's culinary empire. I had a chance to meet Acurio when the restaurant opened back in 2008--he was charismatic, friendly, easygoing, and delightfully pretense-free. He's like the Mario Batali of Peru, with numerous restaurants, a definitive culinary style, cookbooks, and a strong TV presence, although Acurio's empire is a bit more extensive than Batali's, spanning multiple countries. (Then again, I'm not sure if Acurio has any plans for his own line of cookware, Crocs, and brick ovens.)
I visited the restaurant for dinner when it first opened, and then the chef de cuisine left, so I returned to check it out for lunch, and then on a warm summer night I came back in for an early dinner on the back patio. And can you believe I have still barely made it through the menu? It's hefty.
And just like the menu, the restaurant itself is huge: there's a bar area in the front that fills up with Pisco punch-swilling peeps during happy hour, and once you enter the restaurant there's a spacious and loungey breezeway area that would be perfect for private parties. You follow a long and glowing cebiche bar into the dining room: it's a boisterous space, usually packed with people, with an open kitchen. It has an easy, summery vibe, with woven cerulean blue seats, lots of warm wood, and is full of light from outside. Cass Calder Smith designed the space, which is in a historic building (100 years and counting)--even the bathroom has historic status, which the little sign in there will tell you.
The back patio is definitely the coveted spot on our rare balmy days and nights, when we're like a population of patio-seeking missiles. The view of the water is a treat, and pssst, I'm about to give away a big secret about it. (Actually, on second thought, I'm not. I'm saving it for my book, ha! You'll just have to buy it in March 2010 to find out. Muah hua hua.) Anyway, it's gorgeous back there, and if you request a table under a heat lamp, you'll be sitting pretty when the evening breeze kicks in. Speaking of gorgeous, fellas and ladies who love ladies, wait until you see the hostesses, goodness--it's like a South American beauty pageant at the host stand.
While you're poring over the lengthy menu full of many dishes and ingredients you may not recognize, you're presented with one of the most colorful snacks: a basket of fried red potato, plantain, and yucca chips, with three creamy dipping sauces made with various Peruvian chiles (and different levels of heat). The chips go swimmingly with the cocktails here--the drinks are refreshing, and many use infused Piscos, like basil or rosemary (and they will get you feeling buzzed right quick).
If you're not starting with a cocktail, the wine list by Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji features some South American selections (to be expected), and you can also explore Spanish vinos on the list as well. Which means there are some very reasonably priced selections by the glass (how novel, thank you), plus three flights that are designed to let you compare two wines, like a tempranillo from Spain and one from Lake County.
You cannot pass up the cebiches, which is what this place is known for. It's hard to choose, so there's actually a tasting of four for $28, a smart start if it's your first time and you're with a group (or just a hearty eater). On one visit I chose the mixto ($16), with perfectly cured mahi mahi, calamari, and octopus that play against the starch of yam and the monster white Peruvian corn (choclo), all dressed in a feisty and bright yellow aji amarillo (yellow pepper) leche de tigre (the cebiche marinade of lime juice and chile), spiked with red onion. Oh yeah, with some habanero in there for good measure. It's a fitting start to a meal here, full of electric color, with bright flavors to match.
The Technicolor parade continues with the causa tasting ($17), my favorite dish on the menu (I have ordered it every time). Causas are basically seasoned and whipped potatoes served lightly cool, dense little towers topped with a variety of seafood and piquant sauces. Think of the limeña as a Dungeness crab deviled egg (it comes with quail egg) plus a creamy sauce that has a richness like a Peruvian hollandaise, while the purple potato nikei is another crowd pleaser, crowned with ahi tuna, avocado puree, and a spicy aji amarillo and rocoto sauce. The only dud was the criolla, which came with dry mahi mahi topped with pickled onion--I'd rather double down with one of the previous two versions. There's also a mixed vegetable causa, the casera, for those who don't eat fish.
Another medley to consider is the empanada sampler ($18). They're flaky and light, stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness, from seafood to chicken to the tender lomo saltado (beef tenderloin with red onion and tomato). You also get some more faboo dipping sauces to play with.
Are you into beef? Then you should saddle up for the anticuchos de corazón ($11), skewers of grilled beef heart with a spicy rocoto sauce on the side. Now, are you freaking about the heart? Don't, because it's wonderful. The texture is a bit like that of skirt steak, a touch chewy, with a slight mineral/iron tang to it. This dish rocked the flavor house, with its aji panca marinade, plus lightly fried slices of potato, more Peruvian giant corn, and the kick-ass rocoto sauce. Rawr. But if you don't want to beef it up, there are also delicious skewers of grilled octopus ($16) or chicken livers ($9).
The kitchen really knows how to handle seafood. My sis and I attacked the arroz jugoso ($24), a dish that had the texture of a risotto that fandango-ed with a bouillabaisse or cioppino. This juicy number was loaded with baby shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, octopus, and white fish, all cooked perfectly and tender. It can be so tricky to nail a dish with mixed seafood, like the clams can end up rubbery while the mussels need more time, you know? Not here. My sole gripe is that is was unexpectedly the rice that was a touch underdone.
Actually, since we're on gripes, I have definitely had service timing issues each time I've been here, with occasionally long lags in between courses, or sometimes my food arriving before my wine or cocktails (I think the front bar is so far away that they get snagged). I also had a wine glass that was not cleaned very well. These are the kinds of important details that can fall through the cracks in big places such as this one. But the staff is friendly and quite knowledgeable about everything (don't let the unfamiliar ingredients on the menu intimidate you--your server can walk you through all of it), so it helps smooth over any bumps.
The way the menu is constructed, it lends itself well to sharing and group dining, easygoing business dinners, and definitely double dates. There are a variety of seating options where you can get your posse together, like the 18-person table that has its own private area (although it's not enclosed). However, the bill can add up quick, so I wouldn't host a big party with my money-strapped artiste friends here. (The desserts are also oddly expensive, hovering around $11.) Nor would I bring a lot of vegetarians here, although there are enough choices that they won't go hungry.
And just in case you're fired up to head over for dinner tonight, keep in mind it can be hard to land reservations here--it's definitely popular. Speaking of popular, the happy hour has great deals on Piscos ($5) and tasty bar bites--check it out Monday through Friday, 4pm-6pm. Salud!
La Mar Cebicheria Peruana
Pier 1 1/2
Cross: Washington St.
San Francisco, CA 94111